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There was no dial tone.


She jiggled the receiver-cradle buttons.


Nothing.


She put the receiver down and followed the cord around the side of the desk to the wall, to see if it had come unplugged. It wasn’t unplugged; it was chewed.


Bitten in two.


Aristophanes.


She remembered other things that Palmer Wainwright had said in the garden: There are certain forces, dark and powerful forces, that want to see this played out the wrong way. Dark forces that thrive on tragedy. They want to see it end in senseless violence and blood. . . There are forces aligned. . . good and evil, right and wrong. You’re on the right side, Grace. But the cat—ah, the cat’s a different story. A: all times, you must be wary of the cat.


She also remembered when the series of paranormal events had begun, and she realized that the cat had been an integral part of it all, from the very start. Wednesday of last week. When she had suddenly awakened from her afternoon nap that day—catapulted out of a nightmare about Carol—there had been an incredibly brilliant and violent barrage of Lightening beyond the study windows. She had staggered to the nearest window, and while she had stood there on unsteady, arthritic legs, half-awake and half-asleep, she’d had the eerie feeling that something monstrous had followed her up from the world of her nightmare, something demonic with a hungry grin on its face. For a few seconds that feeling had been so strong, so real, that she had been afraid to turn around and look into the shadowy room behind her. But then she had dismissed that weird thought as nothing more than the cold residue of the nightmare. Now, of course, she knew she shouldn’t have dismissed it so quickly. Something strange had been in the room with her—a spirit; a presence; call it what you will. It had been there. And now it was in the cat.


She left the study and hurried down the hall.


In the kitchen, she found that phone cord also chewed apart.


There was no sign of Aristophanes.


Nevertheless, Grace knew he was nearby, perhaps even close enough to be watching her. She sensed his—or its—presence.


She listened. The house was too silent.


She wanted to cross the few feet of open floor to the kitchen door, open it boldly, and walk away from the house. But she strongly suspected that any attempt to leave would trigger an immediate and vicious attack.


She thought about the cat’s claws, teeth, fangs. It wasn’t merely a house pet, not just an amusing Siamese with a cute, furry face. It was actually a tough little killing machine, too; its feral impulses lay beneath a thin veneer of domestication. It was both respected and dreaded by mice and birds and squirrels. But could it kill a grown woman?


Yes, she thought uneasily. Yes, Aristophanes could kill me if he caught me by surprise and if he went for either my throat or my eyes.


The best thing she could do was stay within the house and not antagonize the cat until she had armed herself and could feel confident of winning any battle.


The only other telephone was in the second-floor bedroom. Wary, she went upstairs, even though she knew the third extension would be out of order, too.


It was.


But there was something in the bedroom that made the journey up the stairs worthwhile. The gun. She pulled open the top drawer of her nightstand and took out the loaded pistol she kept there. She had a hunch she would need it.


A hiss. A rustle.


Behind her.


Before she could swing around and confront her adversary, he was on her. He vaulted from the floor to the bed, sprang from the bed to her back, landing with nearly enough force to knock her off balance. She tottered for a moment and almost fell forward into the bedside lamp.


Aristophanes hissed and spat and scrambled for purchase on her back.


Fortunately, she kept her feet under her. She spun around and shook herself, frantically attempting to throw him off before he could do any damage.


His claws were hooked in her clothes. Although she was wearing both a blouse and a sweater, she felt a couple of his razor-tipped nails puncturing her skin—hot little points of pain. He wouldn’t let go.


She drew her shoulders up and tucked her head down, pulling her chin in tight against her chest, protecting her neck as best she could. She swung one fist up behind her back, struck only air, tried again, and hit the cat with a blow that was too weak to have done any harm.


Nevertheless, Aristophanes squealed with rage and snapped at her neck. He was foiled by her hunched shoulders and by her thick hair, which got in his mouth and gagged him.


She had never wanted anything half so much as she wanted to kill the little bastard. He was no longer the familiar pet she had loved; he was a strange and hateful beast, and she harbored no ghost of affection for him.


She wished she could use the gun she was clutching in her right hand, but there was no way she could shoot him without shooting herself, too.


She struck at him repeatedly with her left hand, her arthritic shoulder protesting sharply, painfully when she twisted her arm up and backwards at such an unnatural angle.


At least for a moment, the cat abandoned its relentless but thus far ineffective attack on her neck. It slashed its claws across her flailing fist, slicing open the skin on her knuckles.


Her fingers were instantly slick with blood. They stung so badly that her eyes started to water.


Either the sight or the odor of the blood encouraged the cat. It shrieked with savage glee.


Grace began to think the unthinkable—that she was going to lose this fight.


No!


She struggled against the grip of fear that threatened to incapacitate her, tried to clear her panic-befuddled mind, and suddenly had an idea that she thought might save her life. She stumbled toward the nearest stretch of open wall, to the left of the dresser. The cat clung tenaciously to her back, insistently pressing its snout against the base of her skull, hissing and snarling. It was determined to force its way to her sheltered neck and rip open her jugular vein.


When Grace reached the wall, she turned her back to it, then fell against it with all her weight, slamming the cat into the plaster behind her, pinning it hard between her body and the wall, hoping to break its spine. The jolt brought a flash of pain through her shoulders and drove the animal’s claws deeper into her back muscles. The cat’s scream was nearly shrill enough to shatter fine crystal, and it sounded almost like the wail of a human infant. But its grip on her didn’t weaken. Grace pushed away from the wall, then slammed into it a second time, and the cat wailed as before, but still held fast. She thrust herself off the wall, intending to make a third attempt to crush her adversary, but before she could fall back on him, the cat let go of her. He dropped to the floor, rolled, sprang to his feet, and scurried away from her, favoring his right foreleg.


Good. She had hurt him.


She sagged against the wall, raised the .22 pistol that was stilt in her right hand, and squeezed the trigger.


Nothing.


She had forgotten to switch off the safeties.


The cat hurried through the open door and disappeared into the upstairs hail.


Grace went to the door, closed it, leaned wearily against it. Gasping.


Her left hand was scratched and bleeding, and her back bore half a dozen claw punctures, but she had won the first round. The cat was limping; he was injured, perhaps as badly as she was, and he was the one who had retreated.


No celebration, though. Not yet.


Not until she had gotten out of the house alive. And not until she was certain that Carol was safe, too.


After the unsettling telephone conversation he’d had with the receptionist at Maugham & Crichton, Paul didn’t know what the hell to do.


He couldn’t write. That was for sure. He couldn’t get his mind off Carol long enough to advance the plot of his novel by so much as even one sentence.


He wanted to call Lincoln Werth, at police headquarters, and arrange to have a sheriff’s deputy waiting at the cabin when Carol and Jane arrived up there. He wanted them brought home. But he could imagine the conversation he would have with Detective Werth, and the thought of it daunted him:


“You want a deputy to meet them at the cabin?”


“That’s right.”


“Why?”


“1 think my wife’s in danger.”


“What kind of danger?”


“1 think the girl, Jane Doe, might be violent. Maybe even homicidal.”


“Why do you think that?”


“Because under hypnosis she claimed to be Millie Parker.”


“Who’s that?”


“Millie Parker once tried to kill her mother.”


“She did? When was that?”


“Back in 1905.”


“Then she’d be a little old lady today, for Christ’s sake. The kid’s only fourteen or fifteen.”


“You don’t understand. Millie Parker’s been dead for about seventy-six years and—”


“Wait a minute, wait a minute! What the hell are you saying? That your wife might be murdered by some kid who’s been dead for most of the century?”


“No. Of course not.”


“Then what do you mean?”


“F. . . don’t know.”


Werth would think that he had been out boozing all night, or that he had started the morning with a couple of joints of good grass.


Besides, it wasn’t fair to Jane to accuse her publicly of being a potential killer. Perhaps Carol was right. Maybe the kid was just a victim. Except for what she said under hypnosis, she certainly seemed to be incapable of violence.


On the other hand, of all the people she could have claimed to be, why had she said that she was Millicent Parker, the would-be murderess? Where had she heard that name before. Didn’t the use of it indicate latent hostility?


Paul swiveled his typing chair away from the desk and stared out the window at the gray sky. The wind was picking up by the minute. The clouds were racing westward across the sky, as if they were enormous, swift, dark ships with billowing sails the color of thunderstorms.


BLADE, BLOOD, DEATH, TOMB, KILL, CAROL.


I’ve got to go to the cabin, he thought with sudden decisiveness, and he got to his feet.


Maybe he was overreacting to this Millicent Parker business, but he couldn’t just sit here, wondering....


He went into the master bedroom to throw some things into a suitcase. After only a brief hesitation, he decided to pack his .38 revolver.


The girl said, “How much farther to the cabin?”


“Another twenty minutes,” Carol said. “The whole drive usually takes just about two hours and fifteen minutes, and we’re pretty much on schedule.”


The mountains were cool and green. Some trees had already been touched by the artful hand of autumn, and most—all but the evergreens—would change the color of their leaves during the next few weeks. Today, however, the predominant shade was still green, with a smattering of gold here and there, an occasional touch of red. The edge of the forest— wherever the meadow or the roadway met the trees— was decorated with a few end-of-the-season wildflowers, blue and white and purple.


“It’s beautiful up here,” Jane said as they followed the two-lane county road around a curve. The right-hand bank, which sloped down to the macadam, was covered with vividly green clusters of rhododendron shrubs.


“I love the Pennsylvania mountains,” Carol said. She felt more relaxed now than she had in weeks. “It’s so peaceful here. Wait till you’ve been at the cabin a day or two. You’ll forget the rest of the world exists.”


They came out of the curve onto an ascending straightaway, where the interlocking branches of the trees formed a tunnel over portions of the lane. At those points where the trees parted sufficiently to provide a glimpse of the sky, there was nothing to be seen but massive, gray-black clouds clotted together in surging, ugly, threatening formations.


“I sure hope it doesn’t rain and spoil our first day here,” Jane said.


“Rain won’t spoil anything,” Carol assured her. “If we’re forced to stay inside, we’ll just throw a whole bunch of logs in the big stone fireplace and roast some hot dogs indoors. And we have a closetful of games to help us pass rainy days. Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Risk, Battleship, and at least a dozen others. I think we’ll be able to avoid cabin fever.”


“It’s going to be fun,” Jane said enthusiastically.


The canopy of trees parted overhead, and the September sky churned darkly.


11


GRACE sat on the edge of the bed, holding the .22 pistol, considering her options. She didn’t have many.


In fact, the more she thought about it, the more it seemed to her that the cat had a better chance of winning this duel than she did.


If she attempted to leave the house by way of the bedroom window, she would surely break a leg and probably her neck as well. If she had been only twenty years younger, she might have tried it. But at seventy, with her swollen joints and brittle bones, jumping from a second-floor window onto a concrete patio could only end in misery. Anyway, the point wasn’t just to get out of the house, but to get out in one piece, so she could make it across town to Carol’s and Paul’s place.


She could open the window and start screaming for help. But she was afraid that Aristophanes—or the thing using Aristophanes' body—would attack anyone who showed up and tried to assist her, and she didn’t want a neighbor’s death on her conscience.


This was her battle. No one else’s. She would have to fight it alone.


She considered all the routes by which she might possibly leave the house once she had reached the bottom floor—if she reached the bottom floor—but no particular route seemed less dangerous than any other. The cat could be anywhere. Everywhere. The bedroom was the only safe place in the house. If she ventured out of this sanctuary, the cat would be waiting for her and would attack her, regardless of whether she tried to exit the house by the front door, the kitchen door, or one of the ground-floor windows. It would be crouched in one shadow or another, perhaps perched atop a bookcase or cupboard or hutch, tensed and ready to launch itself down onto her startled, upturned face.


She had the gun, of course. But the cat, stealthy by nature, would always have the advantage of surprise. If it got just a two- or three-second lead on her, if she was only that little bit slower to react than was the cat, it would have ample time to fasten onto her face, tear open her throat, or gouge her eyes out with its quick, stiletto claws.


Strangely, though she had accepted the doctrine of reincarnation, though she now knew beyond doubt that there was some kind of life after death, she nevertheless feared dying. The certainty of eternal life in no way diminished the value of this life. Indeed, now that she could discern godlike machinery just below the visible surface of the world, her life seemed to have more meaning and purpose than ever before.

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